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Answer by Kate Powers, newly minted TV writer:
It's not uncommon for a writing staff to use a visual reference tool to track the breaking of one or more episodes. I've pretty much only worked in rooms where we favored 3-by-5 index cards on 3-by-4 cork boards, but many shows prefer white boards, or in some cases magnetized white boards and dry erase “tiles” that function like cork boards. A lot of the time, this is in addition to the near-constant note-taking of writers' assistants.
It's nearly impossible to hold all the ideas under discussion in your head for the week or two (or three) it takes to break an episode. When an idea lands, adding it to an external, physical list of known beats means that's one less thing for writers to remember as they continue to discuss variation iterations. (Typically the most senior person—the showrunner, if she's in the room, or her second in command if she's not—decides if an idea has “landed,” but it's usually pretty consensual. There's a sense that the whole room likes that version and wants to see where it leads.)
Shows vary wildly in what they consider to be a “fully broken” story. Some rooms won't send an episode to outline unless the scenes are broken almost down to the level of line-by-line dialogue. (Faithfully recorded by the assistant, of course, and then referred to by the assigned writer when he or she sits down to write.) Other rooms—usually those where time is at a premium and room time is limited to a few hours a day, or possibly just a week or two at the start of pre-production—content themselves with a day or two of discussion per episode, landing on act breaks and major character reveals, but leaving the rest to writers' ingenuity.
Many writers, particularly those who come from features or don't have a lot of TV experience, prefer the latter style of breaking, because it gives them more freedom to explore the stories they want to tell. But since every episode of a show has to both “feel like the show” and fit into the established season arcs, scripts tend to get more rewritten when they're based on underbroken stories. Television is a deeply collaborative medium, and although I readily understand why writers want to put their own stamps on the material, at the end of the day, our job is to serve the show and the audience. For that reason, I tend to prefer breaking a story in the room down to the nobs on the cabinet, so I can deliver something that doesn't generate more work for my boss—but that's just how I'm wired.
Shows also differ in their approaches to breaking stories. I have assistant friends who pitched and sold stories on their shows—and became writers in the bargain—because they worked on shows where magicians using their skills to pull off high-stakes heists was an entirely viable starting point. In my own career, the almost universal jumping-off point has been: “Where is X's head at?” and then working backward from a character or characters' internal emotional or psychological states to thrust them into the worst possible situations. Once in a while, you'll come in with an image or a dream about the characters, and those pitches are always welcome, but the next sentence is always: “OK, so how do we build a bridge to that?” And then we start from “Where is X's head at?”
It's a very tentative, brainstorm-y process, where you say things like “Well, what if ... ” and “Yeah, or a maybe just a slightly different version, like ... ” A lot of ideas get thrown out. And sometimes you pitch a line of dialogue: “Dave's like, ‘No, that's not my job!’ ” and someone else turns to you says, in character: “Who's job is it, then, Dave?” and before you know it, the two of you are having a conversation in the voices of those two characters. At those moments, I'm always very grateful for the writers' assistant, because God knows I am incapable of actually hearing what I'm saying—I'm too busy pretending to be someone else.
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